Market Wide Open For Organic Produce Growers

Bruce Schultz  |  3/18/2006 4:46:55 AM

News Release Distributed 03/17/06

LAFAYETTE – With only 10 certified organic growers in Louisiana, selling organically grown produce is easy. That’s what more than 65 people learned Wednesday (March 15) at a seminar held by the LSU AgCenter and its Lafayette Master Gardeners.

"If you are certified, you will be able to sell your crop," said Harry Schexnayder, the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry official charged with determining if commercial garden products can be sold under the organic certification.

Even more, half of the 10 certified organic farms in Louisiana were damaged by hurricanes last year, he said.

Schexnayder pointed out that producers who sell less than $5,000 a year are exempt from getting certified to sell as organic growers.

But meeting the requirements for certification as an organic producer is not easy, however. First, man-made pesticides cannot be used on the land where the produce is grown for at least three years before the first sale. A buffer zone has to be established between the garden and other areas to minimize drift from pesticide spraying. The soil has to be improved, meticulous records maintained, erosion minimized, organically grown seeds have to be used, plants must be rotated and steps must be taken to reduce environmental impacts, he said.

"It’s all about producing with nature and in harmony with nature," Schexnayder said.

"The market is wide open," Schexnayder said. "You will have a market for your produce. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding."

Grower Bryan Gotreaux of Scott said demand for his produce continues to increase.

"We try to double production every year, and we can’t keep up," he said.

Gotreaux said he turns down offers to sell wholesale, preferring direct sales to consumers at a farmer’s market in Lafayette’s River Ranch every Saturday morning.

Dr. Ovusu Bandele of the Southern University Agriculture Center said the state only had 129 acres in organic production.

"People are demanding it, but we really are not meeting that demand," he said. "It’s possible to produce quality organic crops even in the Deep South."

Bandele said pressure from insects, diseases and weeds make organic gardening difficult in the South. But most insects are beneficial, and organically approved insecticides, such as rotenone, are available for control, he said, adding that diseases and some insects also can be eliminated from soil by covering it with plastic sheeting to allow sunlight to heat the ground.

On the other hand, the Southern University expert said organic growers in the South should avoid trying some plants, such as sweet potatoes, because of the high insect pressure.

Dr. Carl Mostenbocker, an LSU AgCenter horticulture professor, said composting must be used to build soil in an organic garden, and even poor clay soils can be improved with compost. But it takes time – longer than a conventional garden, he warned.

"It doesn’t happen overnight," Motsenbocker said. "This is a long-term process of building the soil."

Motsenbocker urged growers to get their soil tested. That service is offered for $7 by the LSU AgCenter, and instructions can be obtained from any parish LSU AgCenter Extension Service office or by visiting www.lsuagcenter.com.

Compost increases nutrients in the soil and suppresses diseases, the LSU AgCenter expert said, but the material has to be decomposed or it could prevent nitrogen from being absorbed by plants.

Manure is good if it has been decomposed by composting, he said.

A nutrient-rich solution called compost tea has gained widespread acceptance, and it’s even used by golf course managers, Motsenbocker said.

"That to me pointed out its effectiveness," he said.

Dr. Donald Ferrin, another LSU AgCenter horticulturist, said drip irrigation is better than overhead watering because it is less likely to promote disease. He also recommended watering in the mornings to reduce diseases and reducing the thickness of plants’ canopies to allow better airflow.

Metallized plastic sheeting can be used to control insects such as thrips that spread spotted wilt virus on tomatoes, Ferrin said, adding that tomato varieties such as Amelia and BHN 444, BHN 601 and BHN 640 have some resistance to the spotted wilt virus. Better yet, newer resistant varieties are expected to be released, he said.

Rotating tomatoes that have been hit with the virus with other plants is a good idea, but the rotation should not include potatoes, peppers or eggplants because they are susceptible to the virus also, Ferrin said, recommending beans, corn and cabbage as alternatives.

Schexnayder said of the 10 organic growers in the state, two produce blueberries, two of them grow citrus, four have vegetable and herb gardens, one grows sprouts and one is certified as an organic pecan grower.

The Department of Agriculture and Forestry official said any food sold as "100 percent organic" must contain all organic ingredients. The classification of a food item simply as "organic" means 95 percent of the product was produced organically, and the designation "made with organics" indicates 70 percent to 90 percent of the ingredients are organic.

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Writer: Bruce Schultz at (337) 788-8821 or bschultz@agcenter.lsu.edu

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